By Bakyt Beshimov and Martha Brill Olcott
Published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Roza Otunbayeva and the Kyrgyz interim government deserve enormous credit for trying to turn a popular insurrection into a chance for democracy even in the face of horrific violence and mass creation of refugees. But they have put this opportunity at risk by going forward with Sunday’s scheduled referendum on a new constitution. While a referendum is, in principle, a way to empower the population to make political choices, the timing of Kyrgyzstan’s vote will make these Kyrgyz leaders unpopular with a significant part of the population and could provoke even greater unrest, possibly even putting the survival of the Kyrgyz state at risk .
Sunday’s vote puts a new a new constitution before Kyrgyz voters, which if passed will create a parliamentary form of government. Voters will also be asked to support Otunbayeva serving as president until the end of 2011.
The timing of the referendum made sense in mid-May when the proposed constitution was released and the vote for Otunbayeva as an interim president was first proposed. The hope was that the referendum would legitimize the interim government before popular support for it lessened.
But now this logic is more problematic given the deadly violence that has swept the southern region. An estimated 400,000 Kyrgyz citizens (mostly ethnic Uzbeks) have fled their homes—with more than 100,000 finding temporary safe haven across the border in Uzbekistan—and there are reports of untold numbers, even thousands, killed. Large parts of the south remain under martial law.
Holding the referendum at a time of such great turmoil is an enormous risk. Imagine what will happen if the referendum fails, or if it passes but with only 30 percent voter turnout—the minimum for a valid result—or if the election is marked by accusations of major voter fraud. The interim government would lose whatever legitimacy it currently has in Kyrgyzstan and will be wholly dependent upon the international community to remain in power. The risk of civil war rises dramatically.
Regardless of the result, the very fact that a vote is being held under current conditions will likely further divide the country’s north (home to most of the provisional government) from the south where tens of thousands of citizens are still in Uzbekistan and unable to vote, and even larger numbers are likely to be too frightened to vote due to lingering fears that going out in public means risking attack.
The OSCE’s decision to withdraw its election monitors means that the government will not be able to call upon impartial international authorities to help them respond to the inevitable claims of vote fraud that the lingering ethnic tensions are certain to produce.
If the constitution is approved, Otunbayeva’s presidency gains greater legal credibility but the interim government will still face the formidable task of uniting the country.
Once the referendum is over, President Otunbayeva should take advantage of her enhanced legal position to press more firmly for the political and national consolidation of her troubled population.
One good way to do this would be to enlarge her interim government to reinforce the goal of national reconciliation. The interim government should be expanded to incorporate representatives of all major political leaders and factions in the country—the only exception would be President Bakiyev, his family, and those individuals who have committed economic or other crimes. This new government would have greater credibility in appealing to the international community for assistance to address Kyrgyzstan’s concurrent humanitarian and economic crises, and to get military support if civil order once again fails.
Such a government would send a message to Kyrgyzstan’s citizens that the parliamentary election campaign need not be divisive, and will make it easier to form the political coalition necessary to form a new government in the event that no party gains of majority of seats in the October elections—which is very likely.
The stakes in the parliamentary election are very high. According to the new constitution the majority political party or faction will chose the prime minister, the government, and its program. Kyrgyzstan’s prominent political figures should go into it all equally committed to a peaceful election process and the smooth transition from the interim government to its parliamentary successor. A government of national political consolidation would help make this a reality.
This is an outcome many in Kyrgyzstan would welcome. Kyrgyzstan’s friends—be they the United States, Russia, China, or its Central Asian neighbors, should all be sending Bishkek the same message. Kyrgyzstan’s leaders must be told with one voice that building a popular consensus to ward off state collapse should be their highest priority.